Will they keep voting for a capitalist-led ANC?

Break with ANC

It is totally insufficient to oppose only ‘corrupt’ ANC candidates, writes Peter Manson.

Once again the South African Communist Party is under pressure to end its automatic support for the African National Congress and stand under its own name in elections.

The SACP has, of course, always been a major component of the ANC - during the armed struggle against apartheid it was the Communist Party that was in reality leading the liberation struggle, and its comrades have continued to play a leading role within the ANC: for example, standing as ANC candidates and serving as ANC ministers. This despite the fact that those administrations have grown ever more rightwing, having long since abandoned the nationalisation and pro-working class elements of the Freedom Charter in favour of outright neoliberalism.

During recent years there has been increasing disillusionment amongst the ANC’s support base as a result of the continuing mass poverty, unemployment and lack of proper housing - around 12 million people out of a population of 58 million live in shacks, and South Africa is officially the most unequal country in the world. But a large part of this disillusionment has, ironically, resulted in a turn to the SACP - its membership has increased tenfold over the last decade, reaching the official figure of just under 300,000, which was announced at its 2017 national congress.

This increase in membership can largely be put down to the party’s continuing leftwing, anti-capitalist, pro-worker jargon - tens of thousands view the SACP as some kind of radical alternative, or at least a strong source of pressure for such an alternative within the ANC. And this whole process accelerated during the last years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, when the SACP’s own criticisms of corruption and ‘state capture’ by small groups of capitalists intensified. This culminated in the decision of the 2017 congress to go for a “reconfigured alliance” with the ANC, under which the party would stand its own separate candidates under the SACP name and those elected would enter into a subsequent coalition with the ruling party.

Shortly after the congress, the party was as good as its word when it contested the Free State municipality of Metsimaholo in a by-election under its own name and won three out of 40 seats under South Africa’s completely proportional electoral system. In fact, an SACP member was elected mayor by the new councillors in December 2017 - a demonstration of the success of the “reconfigured alliance” in practice, you might have thought.

But things changed again with Zuma’s resignation and his replacement by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. Ramaphosa - a trade union leader-turned-capitalist, who is today one of South Africa’s richest men - was actually supported by the SACP. That despite his role in the 2012 Marikana massacre, when as deputy president he called for the police to take “concomitant action” against striking miners - 34 of whom were shot dead the very next morning.

Although Ramaphosa is also favoured by many elements of the ruling class, the SACP thought he would bring the “national democratic revolution” - which the party claims is the country’s “most direct route to socialism” - back on track. It dropped all talk of contesting elections under its own name, despite the decision of the 2017 congress to do so, and it was a case of ‘as you were’ for the May 2019 general election, with SACP members standing as ANC candidates once again.


But now, it seems, there could well be another about-turn. On September 29 the City Press newspaper published an article featuring a call by SACP Western Cape secretary Benson Nqentsu for the party’s December special national congress to re-elect its central committee “in the interests of our revolution”. Nqentsu is quoted as saying: “There is a need to renew the party in terms of leadership and thus we resolve that this should be an elective special national congress” (my emphasis).

He points out that the 2017 gathering had resolved that the SACP should “actively contest elections” and so the special national congress “must receive a comprehensive report on the road map process and resolve on the way forward”. City Press speculates that many party members believe the SACP “will never contest elections with the current leadership, who do not have the ‘appetite’ for it”.

According to Nqentsu, “... the only time we talk about contesting elections is when contradictions are sharpening within the ANC or there are fallouts. It is something we must dispel theoretically and practically. It is a principle: every revolution is about state power.” Recently, the party has been critical of Ramaphosa as well as finance minister Tito Mboweni for not properly consulting its partners in the triple alliance (namely the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the SACP itself). However, Nqentsu added: “The SACP contesting in elections does not in any way suggest abandonment of the national democratic revolution or the splitting of the ANC.”

While I think that the City Press headline - ‘Fresh bid to boot out SACP leaders’ - is a bit of an overstatement (I am not aware of any previous attempt to “boot out” the leadership, for instance), the fact that this whole matter has been raised again is indicative of the mood within the party. The Western Cape, where Nqentsu is the secretary, is hardly the most militant South African province, but even its leadership is calling for a change of direction, particularly in regard to contesting elections.

Nqentsu said: “The SACP must not appear to be tailing behind the movement and ANC government. The party must be able to take a clear stance: it must be critical of this government of ours.” But once again he added a rider: “It must also be complimentary. But you can’t be over-complimentary and allow wrong forces to be the ones criticising the movement.”

In response to this the SACP leadership immediately issued a statement, which read:

The special national congress has the same powers as the main national congress except for the election of office-bearers and members of the central committee [my emphasis] ... At its last augmented session, held from September 6 to 8 2019, the central committee … re-affirmed the status of the special national congress as a mid-term review congress that will not elect any members of the central committee - unless 75% decides to do so, as per the SACP constitution.

In other words, rather unsurprisingly, the leadership is against the holding of fresh central committee elections in December. However, Solly Mapaila, who was elected first deputy general secretary at the 2017 congress, has tended to be a little more forthright than the rest of the leadership. The following day, he strongly attacked the ANC under Ramaphosa for its “arrogance and poor response to issues”.

Mapaila stated in an interview that the SACP might well contest independently in the 2021 local elections - at least in some municipalities. When questioned, he confirmed this could mean that the party might campaign for the ANC in some localities, while campaigning against it elsewhere. He differentiated between current ANC councillors who are corrupt and those who are not - the former would, he hoped, be opposed by SACP candidates in 2021.

That, of course, misses the central point: it is hardly just a question of corruption. Despite the strong presence within it of the SACP, the ANC is nowadays a thorough-going capitalist party and the triple alliance is simply a popular front - which today acts as a bulwark for utterly reactionary, anti-working class policies. A party that calls itself communist must not only stand against the ANC: it must break with it completely in favour of working class independence.

But such a break is the last thing the leadership is contemplating. Even Mapaila - possibly the most leftwing amongst them - does not appear to be entertaining such a possibility. Yet a large proportion of its support base undoubtedly wants a radical change of direction.

The dismal failure of the breakaway Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the May general election, and its subsequent virtual disappearance, illustrates that it is pointless splitting prematurely, without having first won the political fight within the SACP for not only working class independence, but genuine Marxism. Now is the time for any remaining Marxists in the SACP to organise, and begin the fight for precisely such a programme.